For the seasoned China traveler, visiting Chinese cities can start to feel all too much like visiting temples. Each may be beautiful and stimulating in its way, but eventually one begins to feel just like another. Take my adopted hometown of Guilin: When it comes to architecture, cuisine and culture, most of the city falls into the generic Chinese urban pattern. But its amazing natural scenery and serene pace of life keep the corners of the mouth raised and have kept me—and a shifting core group of about 15 foreigners—in Guilin for years.
I came to Guilin in 2001 as a foreign student, enjoyed the semester so much that I stayed another term, and returned 2004 to live. What is it about this quiet place that brought me back? The answer: The surroundings foster the imagination, you learn to make your own fun, and Guilin may be the best place in China to enjoy the slower side of life. Fireworks burst on random weekday evenings. There is still a daily naptime from noon to 2:30 when you apologize if you call. Traffic moves in slow motion and lane-by-lane frogger is the standard way to cross the street. You expect to be cut off and merging seems preordained. You are always within a five-minute walk of a little xiaomaibu that contains every item Wal-Mart stocks squeezed into the bed of a pickup truck. You can live comfortably on 2000 RMB per month and a 5 kuai motorcycle taxi gets you anywhere. The art of daily life is found in the country roads, clean air, limpid rivers, quilted farmland, hundred-year-old banyan trees and undulating dragon's back karsts.
Sure, Guilin can be another cookie-cutter, Disneyesque destination if you so desire. Just follow any tour book and see the sights, each with marked-up ticket prices and souvenirs. Yes, they're beautiful and exclusive to Guilin, but, like temples, once you've seen one, you've seem 'em all, and there's no point in paying for more than one or two.
Definitely summit at least one karst peak downtown for a great view of the city; Fubo Shan (Wave Subduing Hill) is nice, as is the Duxiu Feng (Solitary Beauty Peak) inside Guangxi Normal University's downtown campus (both cost around 50 kuai).
But where you really experience Guilin is out in the countryside, especially near Yangshuo and around the Longji rice terraces near Longsheng. With just a ten-minute cab ride from downtown, the adventurous will have no problem finding numerous karsts to jungle gym on, caves to spelunk, and ancient farmland to meander through. If you just have three days, spend the first day seeing the Longji rice terraces, go to Yangshuo the next, and get lost walking around Guilin for the third. But if you have a week or even a month free, Guilin is the place to be if you're looking to spend some time in the slow lane.
The tourist visiting Guilin will quickly realize that there is not much to do in the big city sense. Most museums are pearl shops or art stores in disguise. The Backstreet Boys and Westlife blare from downtown shops, bars and clubs. At one of the top restaurants that touts its "Western" food, the pizza sauce options are Thousand Island or ketchup. Indian, Thai, Mexican, and Italian cuisine are pipe dreams. All foreign movies are dubbed in Chinese and theater is an acrobatics show performed twice a night for rotating tour groups. A few nights each week there are singing and dancing performances either outside Weixiao Tang (the Japanese Niko Niko Do Department Store) or in the main city square (Zhongxin Guangchang), but these shows usually have the feel of Chucky Cheese animatronics or an elementary school talent show.
One of the most authentically entertaining 'performances' comes courtesy of the old people doing Tai Chi by the river with each sunrise and the old ladies with a boom box dancing solo waltzes, electric slide style, each night by the high arched bridge of Rong Hu (Banyan Lake). Yuzi Leyuan (Yuzi Paradise) is an obscure sculpture park halfway to Yangshuo that teeters between high culture, gaudiness and abstract insanity. Live music comes in the form of karaoke or just a guy and his guitar. In the past, local punk bands or unheard of international bands on the China tour had shows once or twice a month at a bar owned by an American and a Brit, Suanle Ba. But the bar remains closed, slated for demolition so a road can take its place, there's no one to book more shows and members of our own local foreign band, Yangguizi, moved away.
Most tourists end up downtown on the main walking street, Zhengyang Jie, eating unsavory Western food and drinking overpriced beer after paying exorbitant ticket prices to see mountains and caves that can be explored for free in the countryside. Some find their way to the boom-boom, dance-floorless "discos" and end up gyrating beside (and sometimes on) tables, losing count of beers drunk from shot glasses and being treated to a few by some of the happiest guys in the world. Such tourists usually find themselves dancing on "stage" before the night is over, whether they planned to or not. Expect to learn the drinking games of caima, saizi, or "jingcha, meinu, selang" to add some laughs and aid socializing.
Most gatherings occur at local restaurants, squatting over the kindergarten stools of shaokao (BBQ) joints, discos, KTVs (the top choice of locals), friends' homes, or, best yet, outdoors among the mountains and rivers. On the eastern bank of the Li Jiang (Li River) 100 meters downstream from Jiefang Qiao (Liberation Bridge) you'll find plenty of beer and food, all reasonably priced, and reclining bamboo seats. They also sell wood useful for a riverside bonfire to be enjoyed while gazing across the waters at downtown's neon glow. All of Guilin's parks feature karst-top pagodas that make for great midday parties. We typically bring our own supplies, moving on to a restaurant after being kicked out at sunset. To avoid closing time, we're just as likely hike or cab out to the mountains to camp and party in a cave till the wee morning hours, making our own fun and enjoying life, Guilin style.
Staying in Guilin: If you want to splurge at bit, try the Elephant Trunk Hill and Solitary Beauty Peak. The hotel boasts—yes, you guessed it—a waterfall cascading down its exterior wall. For a bird's view of the city, go for a balcony room on the top floors. Rooms run around 700 RMB per night, but you book through Ctrip.com, they come with a discount. For budget value, the Guilin Osmanthus Hotel in the city center is a good choice with rooms around 300 RMB a night. Cheaper still is the Meidu Fandian, offering small rooms and a good location for 200 RMB per night. And if you're looking for Guilin insider crash pad and cave party leads, keep an eye peeled for the dude sporting a rat tail and John Lennon glasses. Maybe he can do something for you.
Getting to Guilin: Dozens of daily flights, both international and domestic, serve Guilin's Liangjian International Airport. You can fly to and from Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Macau and Thailand, as well as Beijing, Chengdu, Kunming, Shanghai, and Xi'an, among other Chinese cities. Book through Ctrip.com or the 24-hour call center at 86-21-3406 4888 (extension 6).